This year's College Football Preview uses information gathered from many sources. As usual, my full endorsement goes to Phil Steele and his College Football Preview, which is the most comprehensive publication of its kind available. I also used The Sporting News College Football Preview, along with school websites and local newspapers, in my research for these preview posts. Please contact me ASAP if you have updated information that can be used to make this work more accurate.
Perhaps there's a silver lining to a rough season.
While expectations among the fans remain high, a team need not worry about national media crushing them with questions about a national championship run that will probably never happen.
Instead, the Wisconsin Badgers -- 7-6 last year -- are flying under the radar, even among those who talk nothing but Big Ten football.
That should be just fine with everyone. It will allow fans to decide for themselves (assuming they haven't already) if head coach Bret Bielema really should be on the hot seat, and if quarterback Curt Phillips really is the future.
Bielema did have a good start to his Wisconsin tenure, winning 21 of his first 26. A 7-6 season last year soured many, but it's not enough to justify questions about his coaching ability. Of course, another 7-6 season is going to send alumni scurrying to their checkbooks, and we all know that money talks in college football.
Phillips isn't the starter, as junior Scott Tolzien won the gig in fall camp. Incumbent Dustin Sherer must be thrilled to see his name third on the depth chart, but it's a deserved demotion, as his inaccurate passing and rather indecisive nature didn't help matters much.
There is some real importance to this decision from Bielema. He needs an accurate, smart, dependable quarterback to lead the way. You know the Badgers will run the ball well, and you know they'll block well up front. They always do.
The variable that separates the good Badger teams from the average ones is at quarterback. Tolzien gets the first shot, and he may be a clone of John Stocco. Of course, if he's more like Allan Evridge or Sherer than Stocco, the team is screwed. It sounds like Phillips will get some playing time, and the athletic dimension he brings to the position is intriguing. Phillips is not quite ready to play every down, but he can help.
At running back, both John Clay and Zach Brown are back to fill the void left by the early NFL departure of P.J. Hill. While Hill never reached his full potential at Wisconsin, he did play enough last season to take pressure off Clay. The big-bodied Clay should take over as feature back, but Brown has pushed hard for playing time throughout the offseason. He only had 55 touches last year after a stellar freshman campaign, but Brown will be a big factor this fall.
Tight end Travis Beckum departed, but senior Garrett Graham is in for a big season. When the Badgers go double-tight, junior Lance Kendricks will get his chances. He's a big target, maybe a bit more athletic than Graham, and should be utilized in the offense. Do-everything starting receiver David Gilreath returns, as does sophomore Nick Toon, son of Badger great Al Toon. Toon caught 15 passes in his senior year. Lanky junior Kyle Jefferson is expected to be much better after a terrible sophomore season. Look out for true freshman Kraig Appleton, a late recruiting win for the Badgers who is pushing for playing time. This is a wonderfully adequate group, even though it is totally lacking in terms of star power. Appleton could fix that, but that isn't going to happen when he can't get on the field. He's not listed in the Badgers' two-deep for their opener Saturday against Northern Illinois.
Up front, the Badgers have some great talent, and for the first time in my memory, they don't have any seniors listed as starters. Tackles Gabe Carimi (left) and Josh Oglesby (right) are typical Wisconsin maulers. Former tackle Jake Bscherer moves inside to guard, where his iffy footwork should be much less of an issue. Junior center John Moffitt got off to a good start last year, starting all 13 games.
Wisconsin averaged 27.5 points per game last year, impressive when you think about the poor passing attack. With Clay and Brown both back, and improved quarterback play in front of the usually-dependable offensive line, this number should rise in 2009.
There is some work here. The Badgers fell off terribly last season, giving up 48 to Penn State, 38 to Iowa, 32 to Minnesota, 35 to Cal Poly (!!), and 42 to Florida State. The 26.5 average was the highest for a Wisconsin team in a long time. It wasn't enough to necessitate a change in the coaching staff, at least not up top, where coordinator Dave Doeren returns. That's all well and good, but Doeren's task of replacing six starters won't be an easy one.
On the line, senior end O'Brien Schofield is the only returning starter. Seniors Dan Moore and Jeff Stehle should take over at tackle, and sophomore J.J. Watt starts opposite Schofield. With the departure of Matthew Shaughnessy, there might not be as much big-play potential here, but the Badgers expect steady play.
They've retooled a bit at linebacker, as senior Jaevery McFaden is now joined by junior Culmer St. Jean and freshman Mike Taylor, who impressed enough in camp that he won the job on the strong side over Blake Sorensen. Sorensen, a junior, now works in the middle behind St. Jean. Taylor's insertion into the starting lineup is an interesting move, but it should add some athleticism to the group.
Senior Chris Maragos and junior Jay Valai are the starting safeties. They'll be responsible for being the leaders in an otherwise-young secondary. Sophomores Aaron Henry and Devin Smith are the starting corners. Another sophomore -- Antonio Fenelus -- is in the running for nickel/dime back duty.
Overall, it looks like a solid defense, but the Badgers were beaten badly too many times last year, surrendering 172 rush yards to Michigan, 183 to Ohio State, 254 to Iowa, and 276 to Cal Poly. In turn, the secondary was torched for 271 pass yards against Penn State, they gave up 287 to Michigan State, and an incomprehensible 276 to Florida State (the most allowed by an FBS team against FSU last year).
Consistency needs to be a hallmark of this defense. And "consistently bad" is not an option. The Badgers can't afford to not be good in this area again this season.
Pieces are in place. Bielema has brought in some good receivers, and now has to find a quarterback to match. The line and the run game will be just fine. There is more work needed with the defense, but they don't have to be great for this team to be successful. They just have to be good.
Wisconsin could surprise, as the schedule includes four winnable non-conference games, and three winnable Big Ten road games (Minnesota, Indiana, and Northwestern). Even if the Badgers drop a couple games in conference play, a nine-win season can't be ruled out.
Any more than that would be a wonderful surprise. After what Badger fans went through last year, it would be a welcome sight.